After the event, it was observed that there can be no neutral bystanders. If employment of the passive voice has also been observed in the preceding sentence—as in, if some hypothetical person has just noticed that passive voice—the same hypothetical person might wish to ask: Who was it that did the observing? It was the bystanders themselves. Afterwards, though none of them would have said they did anything wrong exactly, none of them felt exactly right or neutral. They were British citizens or legally domiciled residents all, and all naked, which was not technically illegal. (One of them might have smoked a bit of a cheeky spliff earlier, which technically was illegal, but honestly who’s going to give him any trouble here?)
A few could be described as not entirely nude since they wore sensible sandals and wide-brimmed hats. Placed at top and bottom, these articles only accentuated the bareness of the bodies they bookended; it was the citizens with hats and sandals who looked the most naked. None of them wished anybody any harm. None could be described as having very strong political convictions. Some read the Guardian and some read the Mail and some read the Sun and some read nothing at all. Not one among them could be said to be fundamentally better than any of the others.
It looked to be the last hot day of the year, and the British citizens were going to enjoy it while it lasted, each in his or her own way. They’d come well prepared. Melanin levels varied, but most of the citizens had applied thick white lotion to their bodies to militate against UV damage from the failing yet persistent sunshine of the late British summer of a very bad year. Everyone would have agreed on that, that it had been a very bad year—continued to be a very bad year, because it wasn’t over yet. But it was nice today, the weather was nice and that was something. And you could be at the beach for free, that was allowed.
Some had made their way down the stone steps set into the cliffs, shouldering insulated shopping bags from a recognizable and trusted grocery chain. In these bags could be found individual cartons of fruit juice, each with its own straw strapped to its side like a tiny rifle, tubes of hyperbolic paraboloids of potato chips stacked with columnar precision, as well as other packaged snacks of nonuniform shapes. These were nestled among bottles of mineral water and inedible frozen blue oblongs of gel whose purpose was to prolong the cool within. Other citizens carried backpacks full of towels, but also rolled-up waterproof ponchos and collapsible umbrellas in the event of you-know-what, don’t say it, Darren. Several of the beachgoers had also thought to bring portable chargers for their personal devices so that the batteries would not be exhausted before the day was done. More than one had a small sheet of paracetamol in her handbag just in case, and the sole asthmatic among them had remembered to bring her inhaler so Amrisha didn’t have a go at her again. Improbably, no one on the beach had forgotten anything. Everyone had everything they needed; they were provided for. Those who were parents of small children arrived the most heavily burdened, having inventoried and packed, among other things, Ziploc bags of gluten-free crackers in zoological shapes; bright plastic buckets and spades; wet wipes; and of course, flotation devices, because Steve would say Emma was fussing again but she thought it was only common sense, better safe than sorry with kids and water, and it was always on the mums to think about these things, wasn’t it. Hence, though enrolled in weekly swimming lessons, the children had been wrangled into puffy armbands. They could be seen now down at the shore, running about bare-bottomed, made chickenlike by their little pneumatic orange wings.
One entirely and legally nude citizen on a rattan beach mat could be observed hunched over in a posture that made three snug rolls of his middle, concertinaed, and these rolls swelled and subsided as their owner blew into the aperture of something slack and pink which, tremblingly, began to rise into the form of a flamingo with a doughnut for a body. It was daft, a fellow citizen was heard to comment, laughing. Whereupon the other citizen began to puppet the flotation device, adopting a falsetto to ventriloquize: Who you calling daft?
Elsewhere on the beach, a party of two was erecting a windbreak whose blocks of color—black currant and orange and lime—were reminiscent of a particular brand of ice lolly fondly remembered from childhood. This brand of lolly had endured to become a part of a next generation’s childhood, could indeed be purchased today from the ice cream van idling in the car park high above the beach. The vehicle’s chimes played a traditional English folk song dating from the sixteenth century, and though distant, the melody carried on the sea breeze and was instantly recognizable to the citizens, one of whom would later find herself humming the tune in the car on the way home, despite everything. One child had recently learned to play this tune on the recorder, which was lovely sweetheart but we don’t need to have it again, okay? But if asked in this moment, none of the citizens would have been able to supply the words to the tune. No one could remember.
Four miles from this spot, nine hundred and fifty-three years and ten months ago to the day, a significant battle had been fought. One army, led by the illegitimate son of a French duke, had fought another, led by a British king. The bastard had won. That day’s violent events, including the fatal puncturing of the king’s eyeball by enemy arrow, had been commemorated in a tapestry whose replica hung in a nearby museum, to be visited by highly supervised schoolchildren clutching the worksheets they’d been issued. They might learn that an estimated two thousand combatants had died. This might be one of the facts they were taught.
But as the British beachgoers peeled cling film from sandwiches, or thwacked Velcro balls between Velcro paddles in movements that made heavy breasts lurch and swing, or wincingly tiptoed into the glaucous waters of the English Channel, yelping softly as testicles tightened with the chill, none were thinking of the significant battle or the invaders who had come from the sea. History was in the past. Other problems now. Besides, it was a lovely day, a sunny day on the south coast.
Around two o’clock—several of the citizens thought to check the time on their devices, after noticing—there was a commotion in the water. Some sat up and shielded their eyes to better make out what was going on. The Velcro ball hit the Velcro paddle and was not thrown again.
What the citizens saw was a small vessel, an inflatable dinghy, very crowded with people, mostly men of middle age with dark beards, some of whom were jumping into the water, many of them shouting. The wailing of a child could be heard. The vessel, bobbing and jerking in haphazard circles in the rough, small waves, seemed to be in difficulty. Later, it would be noted that its outboard motor had broken. This became an established fact. How long the vessel had been adrift, however, remained unknown.
Among the voluntarily naked British citizens on the beach, the first thing observed was that the boat people had no bags. They carried nothing and had only the clothes on their bodies. This was not remarked on, merely observed. It was perhaps too shocking and obvious to mention.
The faraway country that the people had fled was one that few of the British citizens and domiciled legal residents could point to on a map. If asked, most of them would have said they’d heard of it, yeah, but weren’t totally sure where it was, to be honest. They wouldn’t be able to say, exactly, what had caused the war there. They’d be hazy about the unfortunate ways in which their own country and its allies might have been involved or not.
One British citizen stood up uncertainly. He’d seen stuff like this on the BBC. But that had been the news, not real life! For a sec he wondered whether it was some sort of joke, some funny business being filmed for telly or the internet or what have you. But that couldn’t be right. His wife would know. Darren looked down at Shelly’s ample body. She was curled on her side, palms prayered into a little pillow for her head, and her mouth was slightly open as she snored, her rising and falling flesh creamy pale, her nipples very pink. She had lovely boobs, his wife. But he couldn’t be thinking about boobs right now.
“ ’Ere . . . , ” he whispered. Some urgency. “Shells . . . ” She scrunched her face.
“Darren, leave it out, I’m having a sleep.”
“Not being funny but I think some migrants are coming.”
“Give it a rest will you.”
Earlier, he’d been pulling her leg about sharks out there in the Channel, said he’d seen some circling, she’d better watch it when she went for her paddle.
“Shells, I’m not having a laugh. There’s a boat. With a load of migrants on it.”
She sat up.
“I don’t think you’re meant to say that.”
“ ‘Migrants.’ That’s rude, isn’t it?”
“What are we meant to call them now, then?”
Both of them looked out to sea. She put her glasses on.
“Oh, Lord love ’em,” she said. “Those poor people.”
Darren squared his shoulders, crossed his arms over his chest, and for the first time that day became aware of his penis dangling below his belly. Shells liked to tell him he was a grower not a shower, which had maybe been funny the first time she’d said it. They had been married twenty-nine years.
Bearded men were jumping out of the boat, spreading their arms against its sides to steady it or steer it, shouting at each other, disagreeing vehemently in a language the British citizens didn’t understand. No one seemed to be in charge.
“Go help them, Darren.”
After a second’s hesitation he said, “All right,” good-naturedly. With a quick downward tug on each side of his hat, like a soldier going into battle, Darren set off down the beach, stiffly, doggedly. His buttocks—squashed and somehow officious-looking—were observed by his wife, as was the fact that he was wearing nothing but that yellow bucket hat printed with googly-eyed crocodiles. The crocodiles snapped at each other in a jolly way. Their grandson, back in Bexley with his mum, had a matching hat, much smaller. Liam had a thing about crocodiles and Kayleigh had a thing about putting her baby boy and her old dad in matching outfits and so, last Christmas, it had been these bucket hats for the both of them. Shelly had put pictures of the two of them on Facebook and they’d got a lot of likes.
Elsewhere, attention was paid to a pale child in inflatable orange armbands at the shore. Had someone been observing closely, it would have been noted that the fear leaking from the boat seemed to make its way into the watching child quickly, in the way of spilled and twitching mercury. This hypothetical sympathetic observer would have witnessed how, a moment ago, the child had seemed carefree in its nakedness but now, stricken by the spectacle of the failing dinghy and its desperate passengers, looked vulnerable in nothing but those puffy orange floaties. The hypothetical witness might also have noted that when, delirious with fatigue, the pregnant woman in the boat saw this pale child there was something sad and hopeful, an awful sort of miracle, in the fact of her smiling, of her dredging up this smile for the little boy on the shore and then finding her smile real. But the small British child was already turning and running back to its parent because Mummy Mummy Mummy why are the grown-ups wearing floaties, aren’t they just for kids, don’t all grown-ups know how to swim?
“All right?” Darren had successfully reached the water’s edge and was thus in earshot of the boat people. He put his hands on his hips, hoping to look authoritative and capable. It occurred to him that maybe this lot didn’t speak English, so he did a big, friendly wave too. “Bit of trouble with the motor, is it? Give you a hand?”
From the dinghy, the new arrivals observed that the man waving at them was naked and seemed entirely unashamed by his nakedness. Despite exhaustion and dehydration and eyes sore from sun glare and a burning throat and an empty stomach and the pressure of a full bladder beneath a full womb, despite all this and everything else, the pregnant woman found herself amused that the first person they encountered in England should be a tubby little qazam with a small penis and a silly hat. She remarked as much to her sister.
“Majnoon.” Aisha giggled and adjusted her hijab, even if it was crazy to care about her appearance at a moment like this, this arrival, at last.
“Huwwa fakhur bi hamamtu.” Faizah was trying to hold Khalil still. The boy had begun screaming as soon as they saw land. She knew, as did the men, that this was not the place they had planned to arrive. This was wrong. It would be hard to find the next place from here. And as soon as they reached the beach they’d have to move very fast, or things could go wrong. They would be on their own from here. She’d have to get that across to Aisha, who took everything more lightly than she did. This lightness included the way in which Aisha, in her passivity, had unknowingly granted herself the privilege of being more daughter than little sister to Faizah after their parents passed away. Which was another heavy thing Faizah had to carry.
Darren took another step into the waves. But now these blokes were shouting and making angry, shooing sort of motions at him, proper ticked off. It was as if he’d done something wrong. There were a pair of ladies in the boat in those wotsits, thingamijibs. He plucked his hat off his head and held it over his privates. He cleared his throat.
“English?” he said. “Speak English?”
Farther up the beach, it was noted by one British citizen that a few people in the dinghy were indeed wearing life vests the same color as the armbands of her own children. This citizen wondered why some got life vests and others didn’t. By what criteria had they been apportioned? This same citizen was reminded, uncomfortably, of the regulation orange jumpsuits that prisoners on a distant island were made to wear. (Were they still there?) Orange was a very visible color, was why. And now this citizen with orange on her mind witnessed people in the boat throwing off their vests and stumbling out through the shallows towards land, while others shoved the dinghy up to shore. Surf hit its sides and its bouncy form bumped up over the shingle at the water’s edge.
In this moment it looked like a large toy, a big fun thing.
A minor disillusionment, the first of many, was experienced by the youngest child of the British citizen upon hearing the words, no, sweetheart, not all grown-ups know how to swim. The mother of the child observed two women leaving behind the men and noted a likeness of movement in them that made her suspect they were sisters. Their black robes dragged through the sea, heavy and waterlogged, as they pulled a refractory toddler between them. The little boy looked about the same age as Emma’s youngest.
Nobody wanted any trouble. But one citizen, seeing that about half a dozen men were now furious with her husband, who was definitely shorter and older and nakeder than them, seeing that these men were shouting at him and that two of them had raised their fists, seeing that they looked, to be honest, like they wanted to wallop him, her Darren whose heart was always in the right place, her Darren who wouldn’t know a punch if it hit him, which it looked like it was about to—well, she reached for her phone.
Meanwhile, one British citizen had retreated, breathless and wheezing, to the shade of a striped beach umbrella, following the exertions of a leisure activity. The fellow citizen who joined her was heard to remark, well at least you bloody brought it this time. This comment was ignored by her companion, who, having inhaled deeply from the small plastic device, took another free deep breath, pulled a sarong around her own nakedness, and asked her companion where she reckoned the people in the boat had come from, then.
“They don’t look too happy about that bloke sticking his oar in, do they? What a wally.”
“Not much use, is he?”
The other citizen agreed.
The male British citizen under discussion was seen to drop his hat as he raised his palms and walked backwards a few steps, stumbling slightly on the shingle so the flesh of his left buttock quivered as he righted himself.
Elsewhere, another citizen noticed her voice becoming a bit wobbly on the line as she said into her phone, “I don’t want any trouble, it’s just . . . ” not really knowing what she meant. But they said they’d be right there. They seemed to think she’d done the right thing and they called her love, which was nice.
When the police arrived, one citizen, clocking this new and alarming development, was heard to mutter “oh shit, man” to no one but himself while plucking a small white earbud from first his left, then his right ear. Tinny, desiccated, known-the-world-over words of peace and love issued forth from miniature speakers. Let’s get together and feel all right. Among the items in the citizen’s bag, which was red, green, gold, and black, was another little bag whose contents were not, technically, legal. Dreads and tats and the hole in his earlobe kept wide with a tunnel of black silicone were legal, but the British citizen, who wasn’t born yesterday mate, knew that less enlightened people tended to think he looked a bit dodgy. He hopped into his shorts—didn’t want his willy out in front of the coppers, did he—shouldered his bag, and ambled up the beach towards the stairs, casual, chill. Un-criminal. There were three of them bustling past him towards the sea, Her Majesty’s finest, all of them in bulky black vests and helmets, and in case you didn’t get it their high-vis vests said police across the back. The citizen gave them a wide berth so they wouldn’t catch a whiff.
The migrants were still dragging the dinghy up the beach as the naked and now hatless British citizen with his palms raised—an onlooker offering words of encouragement—backed away while trying not to seem like he was backing away. “There y’go!” he said. “Bob’s your uncle!”
Abdul was ignoring these blandishments when he spotted something behind the ridiculous naked man. The sight sent a jolt of cortisol through his body and an urgent shout out of his lungs. He and all the others began to scatter, the boat and the naked man abandoned.
Confused, the British citizen turned and saw three officers running towards him, grim and purposeful. Aware of being stark naked, Darren moved his hands to form a fig leaf.
Another citizen clamped her own hands over her mouth, finding herself suppressing a naughty giggle. Because what if she put this on Facebook? That would be quite a laugh, wouldn’t it? Darren, starkers, surrounded by bobbies! Couldn’t make it up! But come on, be serious, Shells. This was serious. He was a witness, wasn’t he? They’d want a statement.
Elsewhere, another citizen glanced over her shoulder, hastily pulled herself into a dress, and winced at a whistle blown by one of the three advancing officers, the shrill of it a rip of violence through the mild day. They had batons as well as whistles.
The dinghy had been left there; the men were vanishing.
“Are they baddies, Mum?”
“No, sweets, they’re not baddies. They just . . . need things.”
“So why are the police chasing them?”
One employee of Her Majesty had never taken a statement from a naked bloke before and looked forward to telling Chloe about it at tea; he knew she’d find it funny, all these nudies. This old geezer here with his hands over his todger, calling him “officer.”
“How many again, sir?”
“ ’Bout a dozen I’d say, officer?”
Ian, taking this down, glanced up from his notepad to see one of his fellow constables go arse over tit as he tried to tackle one of the migrants. The migrant was getting away. Looked like they’d all got away, to be honest. Well. Probably wasn’t terrorists. Didn’t look like they’d come here to blow anything up. With what. Not that he’d say anything like that back at the station. Upholding the law meant upholding the law. That was his job and he was proud to do it.
One of the British citizens on the beach, shielding her eyes because she didn’t want to look away to try to find her sunglasses right now, clocked the third police officer. Female, shorter-than-average height, medium build but bulked with vest and baton and helmet, hair like a little knot of pastry at the back of her neck, the officer was running towards the two women in black with the efficient, low-key intent of a Jack Russell terrier. The British citizen, a P.E. teacher, was reminded of the lusterless way her year nines jogged about on the netball court only because the game demanded it, and nice girls from Surrey, they complied. The British citizen, whose job also sometimes involved the wearing of a whistle around her neck, was not prepared for the second whistle shriek and the way that this flared the policewoman into a sprint and lunge, like a self-directed command. Nor was Emma okay with seeing how fast and forcefully this professionally armored body slammed into the soft and undefended form of the other, whose robes torqued as she fell, suggesting for a moment the dome of her belly before she hit the sand with no sound. Also not okay with Emma was how rapidly the foreign woman’s wrists were snapped into cuffs behind her back and how roughly she was pulled up onto her knees on the ground, like a person about to be executed, and how the violence of this moment had yanked her hijab askew and how she had no freedom of movement to correct it.
Faizah, unable to gesture, her head half bared, raised her face and screamed to Aisha and Khalil to keep running—“Rah la’iki ye ukhti!”—because how stupid could her stupid little sister be to falter now and look back at her with vacant, sheeplike surprise. Faizah gathered her contempt and launched it at her sister, screaming “Hrebi ya benet ya ghabiyeh!” before Aisha finally lifted up her nephew, Faizah’s baby boy, and fled.
Unobserved, a green-and-yellow hat, upended like a miniature boat, its crocodiles permanently grinning, bobbed on the backwards drag of a wave and began its castaway journey out in the Atlantic Ocean.
As a cry of anguish split from the handcuffed and kneeling woman and grew into a keening wail that seized the entire watching beach, one British citizen was the sole person who heard and bore witness to her own hushed, soft, hurt, pointless syllable as it escaped her, consequential as a blown bubble: “Oh.”
High above the beach, the chimes of the ice cream van continued to play the same tune. Its driver was enjoying a nice little earner of a day, thanks very much. As he handed over a 99 Flake to a teenage girl in a pink T-shirt he noticed one lady all in black go by behind her. The lady was hurrying but stumbling with her arms full of the weight of a kid screaming bloody murder, banging his fists against her like a right little Mike Tyson. Barry grinned down at his customer, nodded his head in the direction of the woman behind her, and said, “Bloody hot in this weather, I should think.”
Yasmin said nothing as she took her ice cream cone. It wasn’t worth it, was it? To say actually she was Muslim, too, and it was a woman’s business whether she wore a headscarf or not, it was between her and Allah. Whatever. The guy was just trying to be friendly, didn’t know any better.
As Yasmin walked away she heard the ice cream van rev up and trundle off, chimes Dopplering through the baked air above the tarmac, and she was amazed that it was only now, finally, with the tune wobbling away and fading behind her, nearly gone, that she remembered how the song went, and it was stupid, but this remembering had the feeling of revelation, because all day it had been driving her mad that she couldn’t remember the words . . . Alas my love . . . there it was, the old song she’d been made to sing in primary school for some reason because . . . Alas my love you do me wrong . . . come to think of it wasn’t the song basically about a guy getting dumped, i.e., quite a weird thing to make a load of little seven-year-olds sing? And she realized now that she’d never really questioned anything at school, why had she never questioned anything? . . . Alas my love you do me wrong, to cast me off . . . just done what she was told, always obeyed her teachers . . . Alas my love you do me wrong, to cast me off . . . or maybe the song was about something else because surely it had to be about something else? Something a bit more important . . . To cast me off . . . more significant in the scheme of things . . . Alas my love you do me wrong, to cast me off discourteously.